The Marshmallow Experiment
(Can You Wait?)
The marshmallow experiment was conducted in the late 1960s by Professor Walter Mischel at Stanford University. He would give a child a marshmallow or cookie, then tell them that he was leaving and would be back in 15 minutes. Then he made a promise that, though they were free to eat it, if they kept it until he got back, he would give them a second marshmallow or cookie. This was a simple way to measure what economist call time preference. That is the ability to apply self-restraint now for a better outcome later.
The professor then followed the children up decades later and there was a clear correlation between those who could wait and their tendency to do well in school, have a lower body mass index and be free from addictions.
I was fascinated by the outcome of this simple experiment, which I learned about from a book I am currently reading. The author then went on to write a remarkable passage on the essence of prosperous societies.
This ability to restrain immediate wants/desires for long-term benefit means that…” individuals begin to appreciate investing in the long run and start prioritizing future outcomes. A society in which individuals bequeath their children more than what they received from their parents is a civilized society: it is a place where life is improving, and people live with a purpose of making the next generation’s lives better. As society’s capital levels continue to increase, productivity increases, and along with it, quality of life. With the security of their basic needs assured, and the dangers of the environment averted, people turn their attention to more profound aspects of life than material well-being and the drudgery of work. They cultivate families and social ties, undertake cultural, artistic and literary projects; and seek to offer lasting contributions to their community and the world. Civilization is not about capital accumulation per se; rather it is about what capital accumulation allows humans to achieve, the flourishing and freedom to seek higher meaning in life when their base needs are met, and most pressing dangers averted.” (From The Bitcoin Standard by Saifedean Ammous)
I am so grateful to my parents and their generation! They suffered through the great depression, fought or supported the war effort in WWII, then went on to serve subsequent generations by building the complex physical and economic infrastructures of the Western nations, so that many of us might pursue courses of “higher meaning in life”.
My parents were not able to leave a material legacy to my siblings and me; their estate was consumed by the cost of their medical care in their last several years—but that is another important story. But they still left us so much, including materially, because their life’s work contributed to the development of broad-based wealth in our society. They also left us their outstanding example of lives lived virtuously.
Their example equipped my siblings and me to live prosperous lives, even though we often chose to live for higher meaning. Our children are now old enough for us to see that they are effectively standing on our shoulders, as we stood on our parent’s shoulders. But will this virtuous cycle continue from one generation to the next? Right now, that seems doubtful.
The virtuous cycle gradually produces more and more opportunity for all, hence the ongoing flood of people wanting to immigrate to the prosperous and relatively free societies of Western nations. It does not, however, produce equality. Reliable, honest and hard-working people normally reap rewards and if their children are the same, they pile up more rewards—and on it goes. However, those who are not industrious, honest and reliable do not fare as well. So, their children start off with less advantage than others.
Let’s say for a moment that I am one of the least advantaged people; I have some choices to make. I can determine to be a hard-working person of good character, or I can blame society for my lack of advantage and demand that I should be given what I want.
My father was a great example of the former. He was “dealt a bad hand.” His father lost everything in the double-whammy of the dustbowl and the great depression. He was a farmer in Kansas, where once-prosperous farms were reduced to desert. That family of 11 had to move west to a small house on a poor, but irrigated farm of only 27 acres. That experience pushed my grandfather over the edge and his anger turned to uncontrollable, murderous rages. When he went into a rage, my dad and his siblings would clear out for several days, knowing that their lives were in danger if they stayed at home. One of my early memories is of my Dad driving to my grandparents’ home to rescue my grandmother, who was being threatened with a shotgun. She stayed with us for several days before it was safe to go back.
Later in life, I asked my dad how he turned out to be such a good father and he said that even at a very young age, he worked out that he could learn from good examples and bad. That is exactly what he did, and he determined to be a good example to us. He and my mother worked tirelessly at several jobs to provide for us and gradually our family became more secure and prosperous.
Recently I watched a news cast which was covering a demonstration in an American city. The man with the microphone shouted, “If society does not give us what we demand, we will burn it down!” I had previously read some of the manifesto of his protest movement and understood the wider context of that statement. His group sees the accumulation of capital not as beneficial, but as evil. He wants a government with the power to seize the wealth of successful individuals and families and distribute it to those who have less.
It seems to me that most wealthy individuals, companies and families recognize the need to pay reasonable taxes for the benefit of society as a whole and for the benefit of those who need more opportunity. But none will be happy to pay for those who have opportunity, but do not pursue it. (Of course, the perpetual debate is about what constitutes “reasonable” taxes.)
These are ideas that need ongoing debate, even passionate disagreement. We need to debate and argue about levels of taxation, what should be left to private enterprise, and what works best when enterprises are run by government. We must debate the pros and cons of local charities as social agencies, compared government-run social projects. We must be aware of the history of tyranny resulting from over-empowering of government but also the chaos of too little government.
In a healthy nation, these things are debated, argued about, even shouted about, but no-one is “de-platformed”, speech is free, even when disagreeable, or disagreeably presented.
But I want to wrap up this article by returning to the Marshmallow Experiment: the ability to delay gratification for a greater, but delayed, reward. Jesus was the perfect example of this characteristic. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The New Testament has scores of statements about suffering now, but glory later, about “laying up for ourselves treasure in heaven.” As committed Christians, we are firstly citizens of “the age to come”. (As NT Wright translates it in the New Testament for Everyone.) The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” 2 Cor. 4:17. Later in the same letter he describes what he means by “light and momentary troubles”:
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 2 Cor 11:26-28
What an unsurpassed example of a man who could endure sacrifice now, for the sake of the rewards to come. He endured, often joyfully, the pain, danger and hardship because he was certain—by faith—the he was investing in the age to come. He knew what I want to know more, that he was putting savings into the bank of eternity.
Given that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God first, should we just forget about investing into tomorrow in this life on earth? Some would think so, but I think we can and should do both. I am convinced that we can do both—invest for our future, and that of our children—and invest in eternity. We do that by consciously saying no to many of our immediate appetites for “things” but accepting any hardship that comes our way as we seek to obey the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Abraham is the “father of faith” and serves as a great example of a man who embraced sacrifice for a better future. In the faith chapter, Hebrews 11, it reminds us that Abraham lived for the generations to come after him, that he “was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.” At the same time, this is how he was described by his senior household servant, “The Lord has greatly blessed my master; he has become a wealthy man.”
Let’s imitate him!
There are many videos on YouTube with re-creations of the marshmallow experiment. I show one of them to my students (college-age, in a student success class) each semester, and it’s a great starter for a discussion on delayed gratifications with students from a variety of income levels (mostly “lower” income).